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Success of EU farmers’ protests shows how it can be done

MANY major arteries connecting Europe have been obstructed or brought to a standstill in recent days by a wave of protests by farmers against what they claim are overly burdensome environmental targets and unsustainable levels of bureaucracy associated with EU and national farming regulations.

The warning shots of this showdown between policymakers and farmers were fired in October 2019, when more than 2,000 Dutch tractors caused traffic mayhem in response to an announcement that livestock farms were to be shut down to reduce nitrogen emissions. Early last year, Polish farmers blocked the border with Ukraine demanding the re-imposition of tariffs on Ukrainian grain.

But it was not until early this year that an EU-wide protest was ignited. German and French protests and tractor blockades were soon replicated in Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Greece, Netherlands and Ireland. Major highways and ports were blocked and manure was poured over government buildings as farmers across Europe expressed their frustration at rising farming costs, falling prices for their produce, and crippling environmental regulations that made their products uncompetitive in the global market.

It seems the farmers have European elites rattled, which is hardly surprising, given that EU elections are just around the corner. While the European Commission announced last week that it was still committed to achieving a 90 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by 2040, it conspicuously omitted any mention of how the farming sector would contribute to that ambitious target. Even more tellingly, the Commission has backed down or fudged on key climate commitments, at least temporarily.

According to Politico, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Tuesday that she was withdrawing an EU effort to rein in pesticide use. The climbdown on this and other Commission proposals relating to farming was rather embarrassing for the Commission but politically inevitable, given that the protests were spreading rapidly and farmers were showing no signs of going home until their demands were met. As reported by Politico, ‘A note on the possibility of agriculture cutting down on methane and nitrous oxides by 30 per cent, which was in earlier drafts of the Commission’s 2040 proposal, was gone by the time it came out on Tuesday. Similarly excised were missives on behavioural change — possibly including eating less meat or dairy — and cutting subsidies for fossil fuels, many of which go to farmers to assist with their diesel costs. Inserted was softer language about the necessity of farming to Europe’s food security and the positive contributions it can make.’

The EU Commission are playing a dangerous game. On the one hand, they are attempting to placate farmers by making expedient short-term concessions. On the other, they are holding fast to their commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by 90 per cent by 2040, while fudging the fact that a 90 per cent emission cut in 16 years would have drastic implications for farming.

It is clearly politically expedient to put out this fire of farming discontent as soon as possible and buy some peace ahead of June’s European elections. But there is no avoiding the fact that the Commission’s long-term environmental goals, as currently conceived, almost certainly require sacrifices that farmers are simply not willing to accept.

Independently from the merits of EU climate policy, two things are clear: first, EU leaders and environmental activists appear to have vastly underestimated the backlash their policies would spark in the farming community; second, the apparent success of this dramatic EU-wide protest sets a spectacular precedent that will not go unnoticed among transport companies, whose operating costs are heavily impacted by environmental regulations like carbon taxes. The Commission’s embarrassing concessions are proof that high-visibility, disruptive tactics can be effective. As such, we can expect more of this after June’s EU elections if the Commission doubles down again on its climate policy goals.

This article appeared in The Freedom Blog on February 8, 2024, and is republished by kind permission. 

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